Top of a mid-May Sunday morn’ to you, dear saddlepals. We’ve a most excellent ride ahead through the back trails of Santa Clarita Valley history — much and then-some to see.
But best we stay careful. There are giant prehistoric camels to sneak up on, along with a big ol’ Castaic cougar. We’ll visit the very first Boys’ Club Auction, say goodbye to an old jail and try to solve the mystery of who stole a giant beer bottle from the first-&-only Rivendale Rodeo.
C’mon. Don’t spill your lattes and soy coffees on your saddles. Heels down. Backs straight. Don a can-do old-fashioned Western smile.
Shall we mosey into an uncrowded Santa Clarita of yesteryear?
WAY BACK WHEN & THEN SOME
AND THAT’S WHY THERE’S A POWELL STREET IN NEWHALL — On May 8, 1875, a year before Newhall became a town, John F. Powell was appointed judge of the newly formed Soledad Judicial District. In 1900, he’d move into a big yellow house on 8th and Chestnut. The north part of the house started in the late 1870s. It was a board-and-batt number built by the Drew family. Drew was an oil rigger up Pico Canyon. Drew would later rent his home to a Dr. Kutch, an early physician here. The Mayhue family lived there in the late 1890s.
Judge John Powell had been a storekeeper up at Resting Springs, near the Nevada border, when the mines closed. Powell’s very first case was Krazynski vs. Sam Harper. Sam Harper was brother-in-law to Sanford Lyon. Sam’s cows had broken through a fence and had grazed on Krazynski’s pasture. (Krazynski was manager of the Lyon station.) The Powells had homestead up Dry Canyon, running cattle and sheep. There used to be a reservoir there and it was home to the San Fernando Valley Gun Club.
Old Johnny Powell was one of 48 names on a petition to start the Newhall School District. Powell moved his judicial district office to Newhall house property in 1900 and held court until Jan. 12, 1923, when he retired. Port C. Miller took over. It wasn’t ever what you’d call a full-time job. His court only held three people. One hot day, he moved his court outside and a small crowd was stung by a nest of angry bees. The assistant district attorney from L.A. was rather miffed about holding court under a big shade tree.
Powell also held court at a temporary construction warehouse on the Ridge Route. Forty workers had been arrested for gambling and instead of bringing them into town, Powell drove out at 10 p.m. and held court in the building while other workers pelted the building with rocks. When Powell and the deputies got back to their cars, all the tires were flat.
Mrs. Powell ran a room and board house next to Newhall’s General Merchandise store on Market and Main (THEN SAN FERNANDO ROAD.) opposite the Southern Hotel. At the other end of the one-block street, Mike Powell ran the Palace Saloon, just south of Campton’s store, across from 8th and Main. The good justice died in 1925. Fittingly, it was in court, right in the middle of his hearing a case. His old house was torn down in 1960. Yes. This is all going to be on the test…
ONE PRETTY TOUGH PADRE — One of the most amazing characters of SCV history was Father Garces. He was in the original Portola party that “discovered” the valley in 1769. Father Garces decided not to follow the big posse when they went west and up the California coast. Hiking by himself, he “discovered” San Francisquito Canyon and several outposts in the San Joaquin Valley. Then, he walked all the way back and met Portola in San Diego several months later. Can you imagine? Walking all that way by yourself, in just some floppy sandals and an itchy robe?
HAPPY DARN BIRTHDAY, HANK! — One of the most influential men in our history was Henry Mayo Newhall, the California zillionaire who bought most of this valley for around $90,000. He was born on May 13, 1825.
WALK A MILE FOR A CAMEL? — May 13, 1856, a squadron of soft-footed camels meandered through Newhall, headed for Fort Tejon. They were part of an ill-fated experiment to use camels to patrol the vast wastelands of California. One of my students just told me the reason why the camels didn’t work here was because of their feet. They were made for soft desert sands — not the sharp rocky topography of Southern California. Speaking of camels, back in 1981, local hiking Canyon Country teen Tim Wilson found a leg bone to a giant Pleistocene camel called Camelops. The beast lived here around 12,000 years ago and was 13 feet tall at the shoulders. That’d be tough getting your foot into a stirrup.
MAY 14, 1922
CHAPLIN MAKES THE RODEO — Silent film comedian Charlie Chaplin was staying in town, after the big rodeo. He was one of several of Hollywood’s Who’s Who with more than 10,000 souls to watch the big rodeo.
MAY 14, 1932
JACKASS CRIMINALS. AN HISTORICAL CONSTANT. — We always look back at yesteryear and its halcyon times. But 90 years ago this week, some passing gangsters drove through town and shot out the glass-faced gasoline pumps. Fortunately, there were no explosions. Same week, the old Cascade Gas Station on Weldon Canyon (The Old Road today) burned to the ground.
MAY 14, 1942
WHO’S AFRAID OF THE BIG BAD YOU-KNOW-WHAT? — Frank E. Churchill was, and is, one of the most famous music composers in American history. Most of us older saddlepals have hummed at least one of his merry tunes in their day. Frank had earlier purchased the Paradise Ranch north of Castaic. Churchill wrote most of the score for Walt Disney’s “Snow White,” including “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?” along with most of the score to “Dumbo” and a host of other famed animated greats. On this date, 80 years ago, Churchill apparently took his life by taking a 30-40 Krag rifle and shooting himself in the tack room of Paradise Ranch. His wife and foreman, Don Durnford, heard the sound, found Churchill still alive, and carried him to his bed. His last words were supposedly, “I’m sorry.”
OR DID FRANK COMMIT SUICIDE? — It’s still a mystery today. But just a couple weeks after the “alleged” suicide, Mrs. Churchill and Foreman Durnford sold the ranch and high-tailed it out of state. They were married within weeks. Durnford ended up taking all of the widow’s money and abandoning her.
WE WERE THIS CLOSE TO BECOMING NEWHALL INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT — Joe S. Marriott, regional manager of the Civil Aeronautics Authority (the precursor to the FAA), recommended on this date that our own little Newhall International Airport (near where Granary Square is today off McBean) be elevated to the status of a world aviation capital. Upon his urging, the state floated a $15 million bond to improve the airport and make it the site for the new Los Angeles International. Newhall was considered a perfect location for its closeness to L.A., but, more importantly, it wasn’t fogged in as much as our southern neighbors. After the war, the plan was scrubbed and eventually, in a few years, the airport would be abandoned.
SOMEONE WITH A BIG OL’ SWEET TOOTH! — Normally, 180 pounds of unclaimed sugar wouldn’t be cause for alarm. But, during World War II, sugar (among many other things) was strictly rationed. The bags were found hidden under some bushes near the old Black & White Cafe, up Sierra Highway. If the owner tried to claim them, he’d have to have the proper rationing coupons. Last we heard, the sugar was donated to the war effort and, to give you youngsters the minimalist history of our involvement in World War II, we won.
MAY 14, 1952
ONE BIG COUGAR — A 133-pound male cougar was shot north of Castaic. The big puma had been killing livestock and it took six bullets to take him down. He was 6-foot-4 from nose to tail, one of the biggest seen in these parts.
TEN’S A SMIDGE EARLY TO BE HITTING THE BOTTLE, CLIFF — Clifford Leo Corn apparently liked the taste of alcohol. He was arrested for drunk driving. When he showed up for his day in court a few days later — at 10 in the morning, mind you — he was discovered to be fat sopping blottoed. Corn drew 90 days in jail for his choice of drinking locales.
AND, HE WAS ON STAR TREK — Gary Yurosek set a Hart High record for the “B” shot put. We mention this because the handsome lad would later graduate from Hart, move to Hollywood, change his name, and become the actor, Gary Lockwood.
MAY 14, 1962
LOOKS LIKE IT JUST MIGHT BE TURNED OVER TO THE CITY OF SCLARITA. — On this date, the L.A. County Department of Parks & Recreation took over sole jurisdiction of Wm. S. Hart Park. Prior to that, the administration was shared by the County Museum Department.
A NEW WORD FOR THE SCV: ‘AUTOMATED’ — The valley greeted its first digital time & temperature tower. Valley Federal Savings opened on the corner of San Fernando Road and 5th Street. It also featured a new, space-age business concept: the drive-up teller’s window.
MAY 14, 1972
OLLY OLLY ‘AUCTION’ FREE — OK. So the phrase is actually “Olly Olly OXEN free.” But 50 years ago, a group of local community supporters banded together to form the first-ever SCV Boys Club Auction (the “Girls” part was added years later). It may have been the first-ever such auction for any club in America. There were just 72 items and some of them were rather cool — “A Drink Named for You by Bobby Batugo” (at the Tip’s restaurant on Pico; Batugo was literally recognized as the world’s best bartender after capturing several international competitions); a flight in a hot-air balloon; a chance to quarterback the COC football team (in a scrimmage); a chance to drive a car in a Saugus Speedway destruction derby; and a street named for you. The top money-getter was a lunch with then-supervisor and Newhall local, Warren Dorn. Top bidders were a Dorn assistant and Dorn’s opponent in the upcoming election — Baxter Ward. Ward wouldn’t come up with more than $300. The assistant took the final bid at $305. Afterward, I’m told by a certain retired mucky-muck pal of mine, that the auction committee giddily counted the receipts on the hood of a car in the parking lot of the Ranch House Inn. The Boys Club netted a staggering $4,500 — after expenses. Today, that might be the final bid on one item and the auction brings in six figures every year.
DESPITE HER LINEAGE, HELEN NEVER MADE AN ASS OUT OF HERSELF — You ever wondered how some of those treacherous mountain hiking trails are so nicely maintained? Back 30 years ago, the U.S. Forest Service employed Helen to keep the trails smooth and wide. Helen was 25 and, well, a mule. Forest workers used to hitch a 2-foot-wide mini-grader to her and she pulled at a steady 3 mph. It cost the state and federal governments about $5,000 a mile to maintain some of the trails in the national forests around Pyramid Lake. Other mules had been used, but not with as much success as Helen. One stubborn ass attempted to vault a pen — with the grader still harnessed to him. Her handlers noted Helen’s success was due mostly to flapjacks. Locals would even show up to feed pancakes to the good mule.
LOCAL LAW HISTORY — On Monday, May 8, one chapter of local history closed and another opened. On that date, the Newhall sheriff’s sub-station No. 6 on San Fernando Road and 6th Street closed its doors for good. They moved over to their new HQ at the Valencia civic center.
In the mid-19th century, bad guys were frequently chained to an oak tree in town until they could be transported to downtown L.A. In the 1880s, L.A. county decided to build a jail — right smack next door to the town’s first citizen and train station manager, John Gifford and his wife, Sarah. Gifford was livid and, understandably, didn’t want the hoosegow with all its inhabitants, swearing and drunken protestations at all hours of the night practically in the family front yard. Gifford bought some land across town — across the street from where the American Legion Hall sits on Spruce and right behind today’s Newhall Library. He even goes so far as to draw up plans for the edifice. The 12-by-20 log cabin, with open-air rebar windows, and less labor, had a materials cost of a staggering $68. With a few improvements, the estimate was upped to $236.25. That plan was drawn up in 1888 and criminals were inhabiting it later that year.
The jail did just fine until 1906. Officers Ed Pardee and McCoy Pyle were the county lawmen in Newhall then. In January of that year, an inmate had his face and arms dangling out the window of his cell and asked a passer-by for a cigarette. He was obliged. Maybe the convict couldn’t be blamed. After all. This was before there were safety films about the dangers of smoking in bed. But on that cold January evening, the incarcerate’s cigarette caught his bunk on fire and the entire jail soon followed.
Just a month later, a modern state-of-the-art adobe jail was built. With the county involved and inflation, the going price for building a simple jail had now escalated to $2,237.
Here’s a little sheriff’s/Martha Stewart trivia: the jail sat five inmates somewhat comfortably.
But all was not ducky with that jail. It was made of adobe and adobe can be a forgiving building material. After being harassed by the unforgiving temperature differences of the Santa Clarita, the adobe became rather porous. For mirth and to pass the time, some inmates would simply moisten an index finger and start drilling their way out.
Even The Los Angeles Times made fun of us, scribbling a 1922 front-page cartoon on the sad state of our jail, with hobos sticking their heads and shoulders out the roofs and sides of the building.
(A Creole gentleman named George Harriman was employed by The Times to draw these editorial cartoons. Harriman created the famous character, Krazy Kat. Kat’s best pal in the strip was Officer Pupp, who, according to the strip, lived in the frontier berg of Newhall.)
This adobe station was satirized on the front page of the Los Angeles Times for being rather porous. Inmates were noted for escaping, either through the leaking tile roof or by burrowing through the wall with a spoon, knife, or even a finger. In 1915, a shack was built next door to replace the adobe jail. That shack was then moved to the corner of Railroad and 6th street in 1932, when No. 6 was dedicated. For many years, it was The Signal’s circulation HQ. For a short time, before the days of radio cars, deputies had to drive by the station to see if there were any calls. If a red light was on outside the front door, there was a message. If the green light was on, everything was clear.
Perhaps the most memorable night in the history of the little white sheriff’s building on 6th & SF Road was Thanksgiving weekend of 1949. In good weather and driving conditions, 13 people were killed in separate accidents. All the bodies were stored in the little jail.
L.A. County finally found some use for their old jail at the corner of 11th and Spruce. Back in 1941, the Agriculture Department used it to store poison.
By the way. You can still visit this original Newhall Jail. It’s in the same exact spot except that today, it’s called the Antique Flower Garden, near the corner of Spruce and 11th. The cells and bars are still up, and, they have some pretty nice flowers.
HAPPY BIRTHDAY, DOUBLE V — On May 9, 1972, they held the dedication to Valencia Valley Elementary. Robert Moloznik was the first principal.
MAY 14, 1982
BEER CRIMINALS — About 8,000 folks showed up for the only rodeo we ever had at Rivendale, the equestrian center that used to be on The Old Road (at Towsley Canyon Park today). Someone must have been really thirsty because a culprit or two stole a giant 30-foot-tall beer bottle. Well, actually, it was an advertising balloon. It’s not exactly like you could show something like that off in your backyard.
SCHINDLER THE SWINDLER — Richard Schindler, the 39-year-old truck driver turned financial consultant, was released from prison after serving three years of a nine-year sentence. Rick earned the ignoble nickname of Schindler the Swindler for bilking investors local and otherwise of millions in pyramid schemes.
Yonder spinning interdimensional time vortex? Which is no relation to Spandex? That’s our Here & Now destination of present-day Santa Clarita. I know. I know. I wouldn’t mind spending a few more centuries back yonder myself. BUT, promise. See you back here at The Mighty Signal hitching post in just seven days with another exciting Time Ranger adventure and, until then — vayan con Dios, amigos!
Check out John Boston’s new SCV history books — Ghosts, Ghouls, Myths & Monsters — The Most Haunted Town in America, Volumes One AND Two. Get ’em both at johnbostonbooks.com.